The birth story of Juniper Valentine begins not with labour, but the incident that would ultimately forbid it from happening, and alter the course of the remainder of my pregnancy.
I was 21 weeks pregnant. Chris had been in Melbourne for the day on business, and returned jubilant after positive steps in a new venture. Our daughter Rosie was asleep and for once we were both awake and relatively operative at the end of the day, so we burrowed under the blankets to make the most of the situation. Afterwards – straight afterwards – a massive gush of warm liquid flooded out of me, and although the room was dark the contrast on white bed sheets was evident. It was unmistakably blood.
Seconds later more came streaming out, and moments after that, more again. Chris called the ambulance and went downstairs to let them in, Rosie continued to sleep in the adjacent room and I sat paralised on the bed, diverting my gaze from the blood for fear of seeing the baby amongst it, even though I felt nothing that large pass through me. When the paramedics arrived and switched on the light it was a horrific sight, and the thing I remember the most – so much blood.
Despite not wanting to be separated we decided not to wake Rosie to bare witness to the situation, and I went alone in the ambulance whilst Chris stayed home to clean up, and eventually soothe a distressed little girl who would wake to spend her first ever night away from her mother. Up until this point the baby had been uncharacteristically still but just before the ambulance door slid shut it gave me a nice solid kick. Through sobs and laughter I delivered this news triumphantly to Chris, who was standing, heartbroken, on the footpath.
I was wheeled into the hospital horizontally, watching the cheery face of the paramedic and Christmas decorations flying by overhead. The whole thing was surreal. I felt calm. I knew in my belly the baby was safe. When I arrived at delivery the monitors confirmed this, and an ultrasound reinforced what my scan showed the previous week – the placenta was sitting low. The conclusion was made that the act of sex had irritated my cervix, which is what caused the bleed. I was monitored for 2 days and nights, relentlessly bullied about transferring my care from a private midwife to the hospital program and eventually discharged myself and returned home.
We met with our midwife, Robyn, and discussed the possibility of the placenta – currently sitting about 1.4cm over my cervix – moving enough for a natural birth. It was highly likely, although the increased risk of hemorrhaging after delivery may affect our want for a home birth. The most probable outcome was a natural birth in hospital. No one was saying the C word yet.
In the following weeks I noticed occasional heavy smears of blood, and tried to restrict activities not to irritate my cervix. Yoga was off the cards, and when I finally felt well enough to swim again I did so cautiously, with a pullboy between my legs so as not to move them. My belly was expanding and it was summer, and despite mild frustration at not being able to frolic as I wished, I relished in my pregnant state.
I was 28 weeks when the next bleed occurred, working at the computer late one night. After my previous experience in hospital I was reluctant to rush there again, and as the bleeding stopped quickly and the baby kept moving, Chris and I felt we could manage the situation ourselves. We returned to bed and arranged a private ultrasound the next day. The scan showed the placenta still positioned well over my cervix, and in fact, moving further across it as my uterus expanded. Relief was had in the news that the baby was doing a fantastic job of growing, dodgy placenta or not.
Whilst Chris remained positive that we still had ample time for the placenta to move, I had lost some of that spirit. A couple of days later we met with Robyn, who gently told us we should be preparing for a caesarean birth.
The days following this news coincided with excessive rain and leaking ceilings, and saw us bunkering down on the living room floor. It was a strange week, sombre and heavy. I cried a lot, and woke each morning to a split second of respite before reality came slamming down for the remainder of the day. In retrospect I conceive these feelings as grief and their related actions as mourning – for the awesomely intense experience of natural birth, and everything it entails.
It took about three weeks to begin to come to terms with the caesarean. I tried meditating to calm my mind but the noises of the street only amplified, piercing my ears and suffocating my breath. One afternoon I had an inspired visit from an artist friend who creates from her subconscious, and that evening I attempted the same. The drawings were terrible, but the act of moving my hand across paper calmed me. I practiced this meditative state every night for an hour or so, always stopping before I became judgmental of the images I was producing. Initially I drew shapes and lines and eventually they became big-bellied women. Through them I manifested my fear and pain.
By the time our first meeting with the Obstetrician came, at 32 weeks, I was much more at ease with the direction this birth was taking. I had another scan, and with the placenta now covering 3.5cm of my cervix – medically referred to as Grade 4 Major Placenta Praevia – any last scrap of hope I secretly held for natural birth was abolished. Our doctor – recommended by Robyn – was a kind and gentle man and through his subtle gestures we felt comfortable. He was open to the notion of a natural caesarean and supported our requests; of which formed a modest list to ensure the experience was kept sacred. Chris and I left the hospital feeling positive and confident in our birth team, with an appointment to see our doctor again in a fortnight.
Ironically, I woke that night bleeding. This one was heavier than the last, and continued longer than what was in our range of comfort. As we now had a cohort at the hospital, we didn’t hesitate in going there. It was a short drive and this time we woke Rosie to come with us so we could all stay together. The bleeding stopped shortly after we arrived and my doctor visited me first thing the next morning. Despite everything we were both able to have a quiet laugh about meeting again so soon. I remained in hospital convalescing for two more days and after an iron infusion returned home.
I had completely let go of a natural birth, the thought of not having one no longer stung my eyes. I surrendered to the caesarean, embraced it and visualised the moment I would meet my baby. But, I was nervous about further hemorrhaging, especially as the last one happened in my sleep. No activity was safe. My greatest fear was a bleed which didn’t stop, and eventually ended in an emergency situation. It’s a given that the main objective is that the baby and I are safe, but the thought of having a general anaesthetic and not being present during the moment in which my child would take its first breath out of my body, filled me with dread.
On March 14th, Chris turned 33. He commemorated the occasion with a day of hard work and a small store bought cake adorned with Smarties. Rosie celebrated her third birthday nine days earlier (albeit with a much more elaborate cake) and our baby’s birthday was scheduled in three weeks. I realised we were just missing out on welcoming the third Piscies into our family. Or so I thought.
It was almost 1am that night when bleeding disengaged me from my sleep. I was 35 weeks pregnant. Quietly I made trips from the bed to the shower for thirty minutes before worry set in. I gently woke Chris, who was up in a flash and ready to go to the hospital, Rosie in tow. We arrived to the familiar routine of drips, monitors and on this occasion a group of night staff gravely lacking in bedside manners. One midwife, annoyed at having to assist me and my entourage of monitoring equipment to the toilet every half hour, chided me for poor bladder control.
The night registrar appeared and reappeared with unhelpful comments about major medical catastrophes and grave outcomes of placenta praevia in third world countries. His readiness to take the baby out was clear and the thought of him delivering my child brought me to a state of despair. I feared not for our safety, but an unnecessary early delivery by a man who lacked compassion towards a birthing woman and her family. Luckily for us, as quickly as the drama arose it subsided, and eventually everyone left us in peace.
Over the next hour or so I noticed an increasingly strong correlation between the bleeding and my Braxton Hicks contractions, which had intensified over the last week and had now moved even lower and deeper into my cervix. Although the monitors weren’t picking it up, instinctively I knew this was the beginning of labour. I was grateful to be receiving some of the birthing hormones, but also knew it could result in a large amount of blood loss at any moment. We had accepted that we wouldn’t be making it to full-term, and excited to be meeting our baby soon. But first, we had to make it to the morning safely, when the staff changed over and our own doctor would arrive.
By 5am we were all exhausted. Chris had awkwardly fallen asleep on the small sofa in the birthing suite we were in and Rosie, having spent the majority of the night adventuring in the hallway entertaining passing staff members, was nestled in next to me on the bed. I tried to sleep but adrenalin kept me from it, and I lay on the bed silently and secretly labouring, watching the clock above my head and willing it to go faster.
Robyn arrived at 7am and less than an hour later we were gifted with Amanda, the most beautiful, kind and considerate hospital midwife we could have hoped for. My own Obstetrician came shortly after and the three of them combined assuaged my fears. I was tired and ready to birth, but it would still be some hours before I could get into theatre. Despite bleeding consistently since my arrival I was stable and the baby was happy, and we would remain in the care of these two amazing women until it was time. I had said my goodbyes to Rosie who was now with her uncle and a family friend, and between short bouts of almost unconsciousness I contracted and bled through early labour. Amanda had rallied strongly to get me moved up the list, and finally, it was our turn for theatre. We had made it to our conscious birth.
I had visited the operating theatre previously and was aware of the procedure, but nothing could have really prepared me for the inhuman velocity at which the staff around me moved. Chris and Robyn waited outside the door whilst I was taken in for my spinal. I felt no pain from the injection, but the coldness of the room made me shiver violently and my doctor held my hands as it was administered. I tried to oppose the numbness as it enveloped my lower body, but found it too distressing. I let go and surrendered every muscle I didn’t need and knew I couldn’t move. Watching what was happening in the reflection of the giant operating light above me, I waited, and when I was prepped and ready, Chris and Robyn entered the room.
Chris stood above my head, crying. We spoke of love and pride and birth, but mostly he just held me tight as we looked at each other. I felt intense tugging and pulling in my belly, and within minutes heard a newborn cry. As I saw the red screaming bundle get lifted over the screen I also heard the anaesthetist announce, very matter-of-factly, it was a girl. At the time I was too elated to care, but I’ve since had mixed feelings about it. Nevertheless, when she was placed on my chest, tiny and perfect, nothing mattered, and I loved her with all my heart.
In recovery the mood was joyous and elated. The whole team was thrilled with such a positive outcome. We carefully examined the poor, sad-looking placenta and discussed the incredibly healthy and enormous umbilical cord. I nestled in with my beautiful new baby, who took to the breast immediately.
Juniper Valentine was born on a Friday and we took her home the following Monday. I had lost 2 litres of blood during the birth and needed a transfusion. Although in hospital, we tried to keep those first few days of Juniper’s life sacred, holding off on visitors and enjoying the new dynamic we had as four. Robyn would call on me every morning and for her dedicated continuity of care we will be forever thankful. Despite everything Juniper’s birth was as sacred and beautiful as it could have been, and Chris and I will never forget the people that made that possible.